THE EVOLVING APPLICATION OF THE WRITTEN DESCRIPTION REQUIREMENT TO

BIOTECHNOLOGICAL INVENTIONS

 

By Janice M. Mueller1

ABSTRACT

A United States patent must provide a "written description" of the invention claimed therein. In its earliest implementation, a patent's written description fulfilled a notice function of putting the public in possession of the boundaries of the patentee's property right. Under modern practice, that notice function is instead performed by the claims of the patent. In 1967, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (CCPA) breathed new life into the written description requirement of section 112 of the Patent Act, by applying it for a different purpose, that of ensuring "support" for claims first presented or substantively amended after a patent application has been filed. The court viewed written description compliance as a means of ensuring that the patent applicant had actually invented the later-claimed subject matter as of the earlier filing date of the application. The CCPA and its successor, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, repeatedly recognized that the manner in which the written description was provided was not critical, so long as those of ordinary skill would understand the newly-claimed subject matter to be fairly within the patentee's original contribution.

Written description jurisprudence significantly diverged from these principles with the Federal Circuit's 1997 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Eli Lilly. In Lilly, the court applied the written description requirement to claims originally filed in a pioneering University of California patent application directed to the recombinant production of insulin, and held that the written description requirement is not satisfied for claims to DNA absent an express disclosure of nucleotide sequence. The Lilly decision may profoundly limit the scope of protection available for new gene inventions; viewed in tandem with recent decisions interpreting the enablement requirement of 112 of the Patent Act, it represents the latest advance in an ominous trend towards imposition of uniquely heightened patentability requirements for biotechnological inventions. Lilly aptly illustrates the increased widening of the gulf between the norms of the business and scientific communities and the U.S. patent system, as users of the latter come to understand that the patent system no longer reflects the realities of scientific contribution.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION

II. THE PURPOSE AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE WRITTEN DESCRIPTION REQUIREMENT

A. The Historic "Notice" Function of the Written Description Requirement *

B. The Modern "Support" Function of the Written Description Requirement *

C. The Written Description Requirement Can Be Satisfied In Any Manner Sufficient to Convey Possession by the Inventor *

III. APPLICATION OF THE WRITTEN DESCRIPTION REQUIREMENT IN REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA V. ELI LILLY AND CO.

IV. LILLY'S HEIGHTENED WRITTEN DESCRIPTION STANDARD TARGETING BIOTECHNOLOGICAL INVENTIONS CONTRAVENES PRECEDENT AND POLICY

A. The Written Description Requirement Should Play No Role In the Analysis of Originally-Filed Claims Which Are Part of the Disclosure *

B. Adequate Written Description of a Biotechnological Invention Should Not Be Limited to a Structural Description *

1. Structure is not the only way to supply a written description of biotechnological subject matter *

2. A process can provide written description support for a product *

V. PUBLIC POLICY DOES NOT FAVOR UNIQUELY RIGOROUS BIOTECHNOLOGY PATENTABILITY RULES

I. Introduction

The specification of a United States patent must provide:

a written description of the invention, and of the manner and process of making and using it, in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person skilled in the art to which it pertains ... to make and use the same ....2

Though codified in the Patent Act of 1952, it was not until 1967 that the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (CCPA) in In re Ruschig3 first characterized this statutory language as requiring a "written description" of an invention, separate from and in addition to an "enabling" disclosure of how to make and use that invention.4 Since Ruschig, understanding and applying the written description requirement as a statutory criterion of separate purpose and function from the enablement requirement have proven difficult. Recent developments in the application of the written description requirement to biotechnological inventions illustrate the difficulties of maintaining a clear demarcation between the written description and enablement requirements.

At the forefront of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit's evolving written description jurisprudence stands its recent and controversial invalidation of patents covering the pioneering recombinant DNA technology at issue in Regents of the University of California v. Eli Lilly and Co.5 (Lilly). The Lilly decision establishes uniquely rigorous rules for the description of biotechnological subject matter that significantly contort written description doctrine away from its historic origins and policy grounding. The Lilly court's elevation of written description to an effective "super enablement" standard of uncertain scope and applicability will likely chill development in this critically important technological field and frustrate the United States patent system's policy goal of encouraging prompt disclosure of new inventions.

Part I of this article provides an overview of the United States patent law evolution of the written description requirement, which initially fulfilled a notice function that today has been supplanted by patent claims. The description requirement was given new life in the modern era by the CCPA, which adapted it to the fundamentally different purpose of ensuring support for later-filed or later-amended claims. Part II examines the Federal Circuit's application of the written description requirement in Lilly. Part III contends that the Lilly court improperly diverged from established description doctrine in two significant aspects: first, by utilizing the description requirement to invalidate original application claims; and second, by requiring that a written description of a claim to DNA6 must set forth the specific nucleotide sequence of that DNA. Part IV considers the potential negative impact on the biotechnology industry of Lilly and other recent Federal Circuit decisions that have introduced a heightened set of patentability rules specifically targeted at this technology.

II. The Purpose and Development of the Written Description Requirement

A. The Historic "Notice" Function of the Written Description Requirement

The purpose and function of the written description requirement have changed over time as United States patent law has evolved from a central claiming system to the peripheral claiming system now in use. 7 All United States patent statutes have required a "description" of the applicant's invention. The Patent Act of 1790 required the grantee of a patent to deliver to the Secretary of State:

a specification in writing, containing a description ... of the thing or things by him ... invented or discovered ... which specification shall be so particular, ... as not only to distinguish the invention or discovery from other things before known and used, but also to enable a workman or other person skilled in the art ... to make, construct or use the same, to the end that the public may have the full benefit thereof, after the expiration of the patent term ....8

The early Supreme Court case of Evans v. Eaton9 interpreted this statutory language as containing two separate requirements, written description and enablement, with separate and distinct roles. At stake in Evans was the validity of a patent on a "hopperboy," a mechanical device used to stir and cool flour prior to its packaging.10 The written description of Evans' patent specification failed to make clear that what the patentee Evans had invented was not an entire hopperboy (already in the public domain), but rather an improvement involving the provision of adjustable arms that accommodated varying levels of flour.11 Interpreting the requirement of the Patent Act of 1793 that the specification must describe the invention "'in such full, clear and distinct [sic] terms, as to distinguish the same from all other things before known,'"12 the Court invalidated Evans' patent for "mixing up the new and old"13 and failing "to describe what his own improvement is, and to limit his patent to such improvement."14 Although Evans' specification was enabling,15 it failed to comport with the other objective of a patent specification:

to put the public in possession of what the party claims as his own invention, so as to ascertain if he claim anything that is in common use, or is already known, and to guard against prejudice or injury from the use of an invention which the party may otherwise innocently suppose not to be patented.16

When Evans was decided in 1822, modern peripheral claiming practice had not yet evolved in the United States.17 Absent claims as we know them today, the written description provided notice to the public of the scope of exclusive rights asserted by an inventor. Through the written description, the public was to be "put in possession" of the boundaries of a patentee's asserted monopoly.18

Today, this role is played by claims, single-sentence statements that must "particularly [point] out and distinctly [claim] the subject matter which the applicant regards as his invention."19 Thus, the written description requirement as extant in Evans can be viewed as the historic predecessor of modern claiming requirements. The written description requirement in its current form, however, no longer focuses on putting the public "in possession" of the claimed invention in the sense of fulfilling a notice requirement. Rather, written description now asks whether the inventor was "in possession" of the claimed invention as of a particular date.

B. The Modern "Support" Function of the Written Description Requirement

After the development of claims, first expressly required in the Patent Act of 1870,20 the "written description" requirement took on a different role. No longer necessary to provide notice to the public of the asserted scope of the patentee's right to exclude, the "written description" language of section 112 of the Patent Act became a historical anachronism without a role in the statutory scheme.21

The written description requirement had its modern "rebirth" in 1967, with the CCPA's decision in In re Ruschig.22 For the first time, the CCPA identified, within the language in section 112 of the Patent Act, a legal requirement for a written description that played a role different from that of enablement.23 The Ruschig court applied the written description requirement to a claim presented after the application was filed.24 In so doing, the court sought to ascertain if the application would disclose to one skilled in the art that the later-claimed invention was something that the applicant had "actually invented" as of the earlier application filing date.25 Thus, in Ruschig, the CCPA effectively transitioned the written description requirement from a superfluous, claim-like notice role into a convenient statutory descriptor for the general concept of "support" for claims not filed in an original application.

Though not expressly stated, the policy of concern to the Ruschig court appeared to be one of preventing the inventor from claiming, after-the-fact, more than she had a right to; the inventor would be limited to claiming that which she had identified as within the scope of her invention at the time of filing her original application. As phrased in the CCPA's 1973 In re Smith26 decision, compliance with the written description requirement "insures that subject matter presented in the form of a claim subsequent to the filing date of the application was sufficiently disclosed at the time of filing so that the prima facie date of invention can fairly be held to be the filing date of the application."27 More recently, the Federal Circuit in Vas-Cath, Inc. v. Mahurkar28 framed this policy concern as "guard[ing] against the inventor's overreaching by insisting that he recount his invention in such detail that his future claims can be determined to be encompassed within his original creation."29

Today, the written description, rather than notifying the public at the time of patent issuance of the asserted scope of the patentee's property right, serves as a manifestation of what was within the scope of the patentee's inventive contribution as of his filing date. Thus, the written description requirement takes a "snapshot" view of the inventor's contribution based on the disclosure in her specification as originally filed, and asks whether that "snapshot" reasonably conveys to persons of ordinary skill that any subsequently-claimed subject matter was truly and fairly part of that contribution.

The need for fixing the scope of the invention on a date certain is critical to the patent system. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) takes the filing date of a United States patent application as the presumptive or prima facie date of invention of the subject matter disclosed therein.30 Determination of whether the invention is novel and nonobvious entails comparison of the claims (presumed to be entitled to the original filing date of the application) with the state of technology before the invention date.31 Absent written description scrutiny, a later-presented claim not truly entitled to the earlier filing date of the application would be improperly examined against a smaller universe of prior art than is legally available. Intervening technical developments that occurred between the application's filing date and the subsequent claim presentation date would not be included in the prior art applied against the claim. If the written description requirement were not imposed, the applicant submitting a claim not entitled to the earlier filing date of the application would enjoy a windfall vis a vis the prior art.

Compliance with the written description requirement, like compliance with the enablement requirement, has been analyzed from the same perspective-that of the hypothetical person of ordinary skill in the art to which the claimed subject matter pertains.32 The shared perspective of the two requirements is more subtle, however. Examination for enablement inquires whether those of ordinary skill would have been able to make and use the claimed invention without undue experimentation, based on the teachings of the application. This standard is a completely objective one; the "intent" or subjective view of the inventor is not relevant in determining whether the level of enabling disclosure is reasonably commensurate with the scope of the claims. Written description compliance, however, is neither completely objective nor subjective. It entails a "mixed" determination, from the perspective of the person of ordinary skill, of what the inventor actually "possessed" as her invention on a particular date.33 The inventor's "possession" of the invention must be reasonably manifested or conveyed by her patent specification, which includes the written description, any drawings, and originally-filed claims.34 The patent specification must some how show persons of ordinary skill that, at the time the application was filed, the later-claimed subject matter was something the applicant had invented.

C. The Written Description Requirement Can Be Satisfied In Any Manner Sufficient to Convey Possession by the Inventor

Written description jurisprudence since Ruschig makes clear that the manner in which a claimed invention is described in the specification is not critical, so long as that description is capable of conveying to readers whether the inventor had actually invented the claimed subject matter as of the application filing date. As phrased in Ruschig, the inquiry is whether "the specification convey[s] clearly to those skilled in the art, to whom it is addressed, in any way, the information that the applicants have invented that specific compound."35 Similarly, the CCPA in In re Smith36 described the "essential goal" of the description requirement as "convey[ing] clearly to those skilled in the art the information that the applicant has invented the specific subject matter later claimed."37 When the original specification accomplishes this goal, the written description requirement is satisfied, "regardless of how" the specification accomplishes it.38

Prior to the Federal Circuit's decision in Lilly, adequate written description of chemical and biotechnological compounds had not been restricted to disclosures of physical structure. Rather, such compounds could be described in terms of their function, properties, method of making, or any other manner sufficient in the context of the claimed invention to convey possession by the inventor as of the application filing date.

For example, the chemical compound at issue in Ruschig was claimed after the filing of the appellant's application for purposes of provoking an interference.39 Whether the written description requirement had been satisfied was not determined by the failure of the original application to specifically name or mention the chemical compound40 that was first claimed over a year later.41 However, because the disclosure encompassed "myriads of possibilities" from which persons of ordinary skill might, through selection of appropriate chemical reagents, arrive at the claimed compound, it did not adequately convey that the claimed compound was something appellants had actually invented as of the application filing date.42 The question whether such persons would have been enabled to make the claimed compound was irrelevant to the written description inquiry.43

An invention in the chemical arts may be described in terms of a physical property which, though not expressly disclosed, is inherent to the invention. For example, the patent in suit in Kennecott Corp. v. Kyocera International, Inc.44 claimed high-alpha silicon carbide ceramic bodies having a "predominantly equiaxed microstructure." The accused infringer contended that the patent was invalid because the parent application, entitlement to the filing date of which was necessary to overcome an on sale bar,45 disclosed the ceramic bodies without revealing their later-claimed "equiaxed microstructure" property.46 The Federal Circuit disagreed, holding that the "equiaxed microstructure" language of the continuation-in-part (CIP) application claims was supported by the inherent presence of that property in the ceramic bodies originally disclosed in the parent application. The court noted that the method disclosed in the parent application for making the ceramic bodies "invariably" produced a product having the claimed "equiaxed microstructure."47 The fact that the "equiaxed microstructure" property was not described in words until the later CIP application did not deprive the claims reciting that property of the benefit of the earlier parent application's filing date.48

Written description cases in the mechanical and software arts also eschew limitations on the manner in which an adequate written description can be provided. For example, the medical device patent in suit in Vas-Cath v. Mahurkar49 claimed a catheter having double lumens (tubes) of diameters within a specified range of ratios.50 The Federal Circuit had to decide whether the drawings of Mahurkar's earlier-filed design patent application could provide adequate written description support for the diameter range limitations later claimed in Mahurkar's utility patent. Even though the design patent drawings showed only one particular ratio of diameters falling within the recited range, the Federal Circuit concluded that the drawings provided an adequate written description: "[U]nder proper circumstances, drawings alone may provide a 'written description' of an invention as required by 112."51 The fact that the drawings did not (and could not) show every possible embodiment of the claimed catheter within the recited diameter range was not dispositive, in view of expert testimony that persons of skill in the art viewing the drawings would be aware that only certain diameter relationships would produce a physiologically acceptable change in pressure at the transition between catheters.52

An inventor may convey what he has invented by describing its function rather than its structure, so long as the functional description adequately conveys that the inventor was legally in possession of the invention as of the asserted filing date. For example, the Federal Circuit gave wide latitude to the nature of a written description adequate to support a claim in the software arts in In re Hayes Microcomputer Products.53 The claims asserted by Hayes recited a "timing means" in a mechanism for controlling the mode of operation of a computer modem. The accused infringer charged that Hayes improperly maintained the firmware code54 corresponding to the "timing means" as a trade secret, rather than providing that code in the parent patent specification relied on to supply written description support.55

The Federal Circuit disagreed, concluding that Hayes' description of the "function" of the firmware was sufficient under the circumstances to comply with the description requirement of section 112 of the Patent Act. Although suggesting that the requisite degree of disclosure "varies according to the art to which the invention pertains,"56 the Hayes court was unwilling to adopt the defendant's broad contention that "to satisfy section 112, a statement as to the specific function of a microprocessor is inadequate, that the actual program must be disclosed."57 The evidence of record indicated that those skilled in the art would recognize how to implement the timing means without seeing the actual Hayes code;58 thus, the functional description and flowchart Hayes provided constituted sufficient support for the claimed "timing means."

In the 1973 decision, In re Smythe, the CCPA identified the policy rationale for broadly permitting satisfaction of the written description requirement by disclosure of function or properties, or in any other manner that adequately conveys the inventor's possession.59 Simply stated, more restrictive readings of the written description requirement would place an unacceptably undue burden on users of the patent system.60 The invention in Smythe was a system for automatic quantitative analysis of samples of body fluids.61 The written description and originally-filed claims taught that the individual fluid samples were separated within the apparatus by a segmentizing medium of "air or other gas which is inert to the liquid" sample transmitted.62 When the applicant subsequently presented claims by preliminary amendment that more broadly recited the segmentizing medium as "an inert fluid," the PTO entered a rejection under section 112 of the Patent Act on the ground that "inert fluid" would encompass a liquid, for which the application provided no express written description support.63 The CCPA reversed, rejecting the PTO's "broad proposition" that the written description requirement can never be satisfied where the description in the written description portion of the specification is narrower than that recited in the claims.64 Smythe's specification clearly taught the functions and properties required of segmentizing fluids useful in his invention, and the use of liquids fulfilling those criteria would "naturally occur" to one skilled in the art reading the application.65 To hold otherwise, the court concluded, would:

place[] upon patent applicants, the Patent Office, and the public the undue burden of listing, in the case of applicants, reading and examining, in the case of the Patent Office, and printing and storing, in the case of the public, descriptions of the very many structural or functional equivalents of disclosed elements or steps which are already stored in the minds of those skilled in the arts, ready for instant recall upon reading the descriptions of specific elements or steps.66

Written description compliance, therefore, should not be so onerous as to prohibit an applicant from claiming "undisclosed, but obviously art-recognized equivalent[s]" of expressly disclosed aspects of the invention.67 Such "equivalents" are within the inventor's possession.

III. Application of the Written Description Requirement in Regents of the University of California v. Eli Lilly and Co

Written description jurisprudence diverged from the principles discussed above when the Federal Circuit in July 1997 issued its decision in Lilly. The following overview of the facts and holdings in Lilly will provide a grounding for the critiques presented in part IV.

The Regents of the University of California (UC) sued Eli Lilly and Company (Lilly) in 1990 for infringement of two UC patents directed to the use of recombinant DNA technology to produce human insulin.68 The patents were based on UC's cloning of the rat insulin gene, a breakthrough development that has been viewed as "open[ing] the way to modern insulin production."69 Initially filed in the Northern District of California, the suit was eventually transferred to and tried in the Southern District of Indiana.70

Although Lilly raised several other defenses, this article focuses on Lilly's written description challenge to the validity of UC's '525 patent.71 Generic claims 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 of the '525 patent recited complementary DNA (cDNA)72 encoding vertebrate or mammalian insulin, while claim 5 specifically recited cDNA encoding human insulin.73 The '525 patent issued in 198774 from an application filed in 1977.75 As of the 1977 filing of the '525 patent, UC had determined and isolated the preproinsulin (PPI) and proinsulin (PI) cDNA sequences found in rats, but not in humans.76 Although UC included in the '525 patent a constructive or "prophetic" example describing a method that could be used to obtain the human insulin-encoding cDNA recited in claim 5, as well as the amino acid sequences of human insulin A and B chains,77 UC did not actually isolate and sequence the human cDNA until nearly two years after the 1977 filing date.78

Accused infringer Lilly never asserted that the '525 patent specification failed to enable the human insulin cDNA and vertebrate and mammalian insulin cDNA claims in accordance with section 112 of the Patent Act.79 Lilly's decision to forego a challenge to the patent on enablement grounds is not surprising because UC's isolation of the rat insulin cDNA made the human insulin cDNA "relatively easy" to "fish out" thereafter.80 Rather, Lilly asserted that the '525 patent was invalid because its specification did not contain a written description of the claimed inventions in accordance with section 112.81

Following a 1995 bench trial,82 the district court found for Lilly and held all the '525 claims invalid.83 With respect to species claim 5, limited to human insulin-encoding cDNA, the district court concluded that "[t]he inventors could not provide a description of human insulin cDNA because they were not then [as of the 1977 filing date] in possession of that DNA."84 Seeming to confuse the written description and enablement requirements, however, the district court held with respect to generic claims 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 that the '525 patent adequately described only the rat cDNA and did not "enable[] the patent's claims to all vertebrates and mammals ...."85

The Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's conclusion that all the asserted '525 patent claims were invalid for failure to comply with the written description requirement.86 The appellate court first analyzed species claim 5, which recited human insulin-encoding cDNA, and concluded that the '525 specification was fatally defective for failing to structurally describe the claimed cDNA. It then held that the human insulin-encoding cDNA of claim 5 was not adequately described, because the specification lacked a disclosure of that cDNA's "relevant structural or physical characteristics."87 The court specifically pointed to the absence in the specification of "sequence information indicating which nucleotides constitute human cDNA ...."88 Nor did UC's provision in example 6 of a process that could be used to isolate the human cDNA remedy the perceived deficiency of the disclosure: the court concluded that, "describing a method of preparing a cDNA or even describing the protein that the cDNA encodes, as the example does, does not necessarily describe the cDNA itself."89

The Lilly court thus demanded that the written description of a DNA invention meet a heightened "precise definition" test,90 previously formulated in the 1993 decision, Fiers v. Revel.91 In Fiers, a three-way interference case, the Federal Circuit concluded that the specification of the party Revel did not provide a sufficient written description of the DNA invention in dispute because the specification lacked a "precise definition, such as by structure, formula, chemical name, or physical properties"92 of the DNA.93 As a result, Revel lost the priority battle to the party who was first to set forth "the complete and correct nucleotide sequence" of the claimed DNA.94

The Lilly court also buttressed its invalidation of human insulin claim 5 with the Federal Circuit's 1995 nonobviousness decision, In re Deuel.95 The Federal Circuit held in Deuel that a claim to a particular DNA molecule encoding a desired protein is not rendered obvious under section 103 of the Patent Act by a prior art disclosure of the amino acid sequence of that protein. Because many different DNA sequences can code for one protein given the degeneracy of the genetic code, the particular DNA claimed would not have been obvious to a person of ordinary skill in the art who knew only the identity of the desired protein.96 The Lilly court extended this nonobviousness doctrine to the written description issue before it, opining without other authority that "a fortiori, a description that does not render a claimed invention obvious does not sufficiently describe that invention for purposes of 112, 1."97

The Federal Circuit then turned to the generic vertebrate and mammalian insulin claims 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 and concluded that they, like claim 5, were invalid as not supported by an adequate written description.98 The extent of the written description required to support claims 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 mirrored, on the genus level, the court's pronouncement that a structural description must be provided to support a claim to a species of cDNA:

[A] cDNA is not defined or described by the mere name "cDNA," even if accompanied by the name of the protein that it encodes, but requires a kind of specificity usually achieved by means of the recitation of the sequence of nucleotides that make up the cDNA .... A description of a genus of cDNAs may be achieved by means of a recitation of a representative number of cDNAs, defined by nucleotide sequence, falling within the scope of the genus or of a recitation of structural features common to the members of the genus, which features constitute a substantial portion of the genus.99

In the Federal Circuit's view, a "functional" definition of cDNA was insufficient because it indicated only "what the gene does, rather than what it is."100 The court viewed such a functional definition as merely a statement of result and noted that "[m]any such genes may achieve that result."101 Without more, UC's "generic statement[s]" such as "vertebrate insulin cDNA" and "mammalian insulin cDNA" do not constitute an adequate written description of the generic claims because they "do[] not distinguish the claimed genus from others, except by function."102

IV. Lilly's Heightened Written Description Standard Targeting Biotechnological Inventions Contravenes Precedent and Policy

The Lilly decision is a significant departure from prior written description cases in at least two respects. First, the Federal Circuit applied the written description requirement to claims originally filed with the application, rather than to claims presented or amended after the application filing date. In so doing, the court divorced the written description requirement from its role first envisioned in Ruschig and thirty years of subsequent case law development. In a case where enablement was never raised by the defendant, the Lilly court's application of the written description requirement to original application claims has created a new and undefined "super-enablement" standard for biotechnological inventions.

Second, the Lilly court extended the teachings of Fiers and Deuel to hold that the written description requirement is not satisfied for claims to a DNA absent an express disclosure in the specification of the nucleotide sequence of that DNA. This rule sets a significantly higher standard for the protection of biotechnological inventions than for other technological subject matter. Pre-Lilly case law established that inventions, including biotechnological and chemical subject matter, can be described in any manner sufficient to indicate to those skilled in the art that the inventor had possession of the invention as of the application filing date. Lilly obscures the function and purpose of the written description requirement by unnecessarily restricting the manner in which possession of a biotechnological invention can be conveyed.

A. The Written Description Requirement Should Play No Role In the Analysis of Originally-Filed Claims Which Are Part of the Disclosure

After the CCPA's express recognition of the written description requirement in Ruschig, that court applied the requirement only to reject or invalidate claims filed or amended after an original application's filing date, when the benefit of the earlier filing date was sought for those claims. The court rejected Patent Office attempts to assert written description noncompliance as a basis for rejecting claims originally included in the application as filed. The Lilly court departed from this understanding of the written description requirement when it applied the requirement to originally-filed claims, and in so doing further complicated description jurisprudence. Both precedent and policy strongly favor limiting application of the written description requirement to claims presented or substantively amended after the original filing date of an application. As illustrated by Lilly, to do otherwise results in an unacceptable blurring between the written description and enablement requirements.

In re Ruschig,103 the first case to recognize the written description requirement in the modern peripheral claiming era, enforced the requirement in the context of a claim to a specific chemical compound that was added to the appellant's application more than a year after its filing in order to provoke an interference.104 The Ruschig court framed the issue before it as whether the original disclosure provided adequate "support" for this later-presented claim: "Specific claims to single compounds require reasonably specific supporting disclosure and while we agree with the appellants, as the board did, that naming is not essential, something more than the disclosure of a class of 1000, or 100, or even 48, compounds is required."105

The practical import of the Ruschig court's holding that the specification failed to provide an adequate written description of the later-claimed species was, of course, to prevent the appellant from unfairly obtaining a time-wise advantage over the subsequent and true inventor of that species. The fact that Ruschig's broadly-described genus of compounds happened to encompass the single later-claimed compound did not justify recognition of Ruschig as the first to actually invent it. In other words, Ruschig's generic description did not adequately signal that he was in possession of the species at the time of his prima facie invention date and thus the first inventor.

Following Ruschig's recognition of the written description requirement, the requirement was also applied in non-interference settings, but always where the claims on appeal had been filed or amended after the original application filing date. In In re Smith,106 the CCPA catalogued the factual contexts in which written description compliance is appropriately considered:

Satisfaction of the description requirement insures that subject matter presented in the form of a claim subsequent to the filing date of the application was sufficiently disclosed at the time of filing so that the prima facie date of invention [of that newly-claimed subject matter] can fairly be held to be the filing date of the application. This concept applies whether the case factually arises out of an assertion of entitlement to the filing date of a previously filed application under 120, ... or arises in the interference context wherein the issue is support for a count in the specification of one or more of the parties, ... or arises in an ex parte case involving a single application, but where the claim at issue was filed subsequent to the filing of the application ....107

Compliance with the written description requirement may also be appropriately raised with respect to claims substantively amended during the course of prosecution of an original application.108 Written description compliance issues are implicated when "the scope of a claim has been changed by amendment in such a way as to justify an assertion that it is directed to a different invention than was the original claim ...."109 The amendment of a claim or the presentation of a new claim are both acts occurring after the filing date of the original application, and thus the issue in either case is whether the amended or new claim is adequately supported by the disclosure of that application as filed.

Nowhere does the Smith court suggest that the written description requirement has any applicability to claims filed at the time of the application and not amended thereafter. Indeed, that possibility had already been foreclosed by the CCPA in In re DiLeone110 and In re Gardner.111

The inappropriateness of applying written description analysis to original claims filed with the application was conclusively established in 1973 with Gardner.112 Reversing a PTO Board of Appeals rejection of an original claim under the written description requirement of section 112 of the Patent Act, the Gardner court explained that "[c]laim 2, which apparently was an original claim, in itself constituted a description in the original disclosure equivalent in scope and identical in language to the total subject matter now being claimed .... Nothing more is necessary for compliance with the description requirement ...."113 On petition for rehearing, the court rejected the PTO's argument that an original application claim should not be considered part of the "written description" unless the specification contained or was amended to contain the subject matter of the claim.114 Whether such amendment should be made was merely an "administrative matter" for the PTO rather than a proper basis for the court's decision on description requirement compliance.115

The reason for exemption of originally-filed claims from written description scrutiny is clear: such claims are part of the disclosure,116 and by presenting them with the application as filed, the applicant is signifying her possession of the claimed subject matter as of that filing date. The claims must, after all, signal "the subject matter which the applicant regards as his invention."117 As explained in Smith, "[w]here the claim is an original claim, the underlying concept of insuring disclosure as of the filing date is satisfied, and the description requirement has likewise been held to be satisfied."118 With an original claim, there can be no temporal discontinuity between the presumptive invention date established by filing the application and the presumptive invention date to which claims originally part of that application are entitled. The filing of a claim in the original application precludes the possibility that the applicant will wrongly obtain an advantage in examination of that claim against a too-narrow universe of prior art. Whether or not through her original disclosure the applicant has enabled those of skill in the art to make and use the invention as broadly as claimed is an entirely separate matter.

The Federal Circuit decision In re Alton119 demonstrates a recent failure of the court to recognize these limits on the applicability of the written description requirement. Claim 70 of Alton's application recited a particular analog (a variation from the naturally-occurring sequence) of human gamma interferon (IFN-g ). The issue on appeal was whether claim 70 was entitled to the filing date of a 1983 CIP application in which it was originally filed.120 As disclosed in the 1983 specification, the claim 70 analog shared (in shorthand terms) a modification (1)121 with a different IFN-g analog disclosed in example 5, but only the example 5 analog included a modification (2).122 The Alton court reversed the PTO on procedural grounds for failing to give adequate weight to an expert's declaration evidencing that one of ordinary skill would have understood example 5 as separately describing the claim 70 analog.123 This concern for the declaration evidence completely missed the point: the analog recited in claim 70 was part of the disclosure of the 1983 application as filed. No declaration interpreting what persons of ordinary skill would understand from example 5 was necessary, because the inclusion of claim 70 in the 1983 CIP application when filed was an express disclosure that this particular analog was part of Alton's invention.

The Lilly and Alton decisions significantly expand written description analysis to include scrutiny of originally-filed claims. Other recent Federal Circuit decisions have wisely resisted the temptation to follow suit in broadening the doctrine's reach. The means-plus-function claims on appeal in In re Dossel,124 originally filed in the application, were directed to a device that functioned to "reconstruct" current distribution data for visual display.125 The PTO rejected the claims as failing to comply with the claim definiteness requirement of section 112 of the Patent Act, based on an asserted failure of the specification to "disclose[] any specific structure or hardware that may be regarded as being 'corresponding structure' under 35 U.S.C. 112 6."126 Although both the applicant and the PTO Solicitor argued that the section 112 rejection was untenable absent a rejection for non-compliance with the written description requirement,127 the Federal Circuit disagreed. Whether the written description of the application adequately disclosed structure for performance of the "reconstructing" function turned on whether the claimed invention was particularly pointed out and distinctly claimed.128 The court held that the written description requirement was not at issue.129 An applicant's utilization of the means-plus-function claiming format provided for in section 112's sixth paragraph "does not itself implicate the requirements of 112, 1."130

The presence of a claim in an application when it is filed signals others that the inventor considers the claimed subject matter to be within her possession as of that date. The claim is thus examined against the state of the art as of the application filing date (presumptive invention date). Whether the remainder of the specification, the written description and any drawings, would enable persons of ordinary skill to make and use the subject matter of the originally-filed claim without undue experimentation is a separate matter. The Lilly court failed to draw this distinction. By claiming human insulin-encoding cDNA at the time they filed the application for the '525 patent, UC conveyed to the art that the human cDNA was something it had invented. This is all that written description requires. Whether UC through its disclosure could adequately teach those of ordinary skill how to make and use the claimed human insulin-encoding cDNA without undue experimentation is a separate question never raised by Lilly. In fashioning a newly-elevated written description requirement in the absence of any challenge to enablement, the Lilly court failed to maintain a workable, predictable dividing line between the two requirements.

B. Adequate Written Description of a Biotechnological Invention Should Not Be Limited to a Structural Description

The Lilly court held that the written description requirement was not satisfied as to original application claim 5, which recited human insulin-encoding cDNA, because the UC application did not describe the physical structure of the recited cDNA: "The name cDNA is not itself a written description of that DNA; it conveys no distinguishing information concerning its identity .... No sequence information indicating which nucleotides constitute human cDNA appears in the patent ...."131

The court thus rejected the notion that a functional description, or a description indicating the protein (here, human insulin) to be encoded by the cDNA plus a method for obtaining the cDNA's nucleotide sequence, could be an adequate written description.

The Lilly court's imposition of a restricted structure-only rule for DNA claims is another significant departure from prior written description precedent. Contrary to Lilly, the written description of biotechnological compounds need not be so limited. The better rule would allow biotechnological compounds, like any other inventions, to be described functionally,132 by method of preparation, or in any other manner sufficient to convey that the claimed subject matter was in the inventor's possession as of her filing date.

1. Structure is not the only way to supply a written description of biotechnological subject matter

The requirement of explicit possession of the nucleotide sequences of the cDNAs claimed in Lilly is contrary to one of the earliest biotechnology decisions of the CCPA, In re Fisher.133 Although typically cited for its "predictable/unpredictable factors" analysis of enablement,134 Fisher also addressed the written description requirement.135 Fisher establishes that disclosure of the physical structure of a biological compound is not required in order to provide sufficient written description support for claims thereto. More specifically, an inventor need not be able to define the amino acid sequence of a protein in order to provide adequate written description support for a later-presented claim to that sequence, if the inventor can at least functionally describe the protein.

A Fisher analysis considers the inherent but unrealized characteristics of a protein invention such as its amino acid structure as being within the inventor's possession for written description purposes. The inventor constructively possesses all inherent characteristics of the protein, even at a time when he is not yet subjectively aware of them. Likewise, actual knowledge of other inherent characteristics such as the nucleotide sequence of a cDNA that codes for the protein should not be required in order to show possession for written description purposes.136

The inventor in Fisher developed injectable compositions containing adrenocorticotrophic hormones (ACTH) extracted from the pituitary glands of animals,137 which are useful for the treatment of arthritis in human patients.138 Fisher's parent application did not disclose the amino acid sequence of the ACTH extract. After determining that sequence, Fisher filed a CIP application. Claim 4 of Fisher's CIP application recited an ACTH extract in terms of its amino acid structure, characterized as a "polypeptide of at least 24 amino acids having the following sequence ... [24 amino acid sequence listing]."139 Compliance with the written description requirement became an issue when, in order to overcome an intervening anticipatory reference, Fisher asserted entitlement to the 1949 filing date of his parent application.140 The PTO rejected CIP claim 4 as insufficiently supported by the parent application under section 112 of the Patent Act.141

Despite the absence in the parent application of any structural description of the claimed ACTH extracts, and Fisher's admitted lack of knowledge thereof,142 the CCPA agreed with Fisher that such knowledge was not required to satisfy the written description requirement. The court also agreed that extracts disclosed in Fisher's parent application inherently possessed the amino acid sequence later recited in CIP claim 4.143 This inherent disclosure was sufficient to satisfy the written description requirement, despite the fact that the physical structure of the claimed extract was not realized by the inventor as of the filing date asserted.144

Thus, Fisher established that an inventor may possess a biotechnological invention for written description purposes via "inherent" or "constructive" possession, without subjectively realizing all of its characteristics or being in a position to precisely disclose them. Later-presented claims that explicitly recite a characteristic such as physical structure which was inherently present but unrealized as of the earlier application filing date are nevertheless entitled to that filing date.

Whether the inherency rationale of Fisher applies with equal force to DNA encoding particular proteins as claimed in Lilly obviously implicates the degeneracy of the genetic code. If multiple nucleic acids can code for the same protein, can all genes or any one gene properly be viewed as an inherent characteristic of that protein for written description purposes? The Lilly decision would appear to answer the question in the negative. The reasoning and precedent utilized in Lilly simply do not justify the result, however, that an inventor of a gene is never entitled to claim it before he can specify its precise structure.

The degeneracy aspect of the genetic code may help to explain, though not to justify, Lilly's fundamental departure from the rationale of Fisher. Failing even to cite Fisher, the Lilly decision relies heavily on Fiers v. Revel, a 1993 decision of the Federal Circuit in a three-way interference involving a single count to a DNA encoding human fibroblast beta-interferon.145 In Fiers, the party Sugano was deemed the first to invent because he was first to disclose the complete nucleotide sequence of the DNA and its method of isolation.146 The court held that the party Fiers failed to establish an earlier conception of the DNA, applying the rule of Amgen, Inc. v. Chugai Pharmaceutical Co.147 to require that Fiers show an actual reduction to practice in order to establish a conception date.148

Written description compliance was specifically raised as an issue in Fiers when the party Revel attempted to prove entitlement under section 119 of the Patent Act to the benefit of his earlier-filed foreign application.149 Revel's foreign application included language similar to the words of the count but did not provide the nucleotide sequence of the claimed DNA.150 The court rejected Revel's argument that because the count recited the term "DNA" but not the sequence thereof, his supporting written description likewise did not need to disclose the sequence.151 Revel's "correspondence" argument was unpersuasive because "none of that language particularly describes the DNA."152 Just as conception could not be established in Amgen absent a "precise definition" of the DNA, nor could the written description requirement be satisfied without a similarly detailed elucidation of the DNA sequence.153 The Fiers court thus equated the Amgen "precise definition" standard for conception with the test for written description compliance, essentially requiring for gene inventions an actual reduction to practice (including sequencing) for fulfillment of either criteria.154

The Lilly court's reliance on the reasoning of Fiers and Amgen is suspect on several grounds. First, Lilly disregards the role of UC's concededly enabling disclosure in proving invention, a factor missing in Fiers and Amgen. The case defining written description in the modern era, Ruschig, teaches that the "possession" criteria of written description compliance requires an inventor to show that he had "actually invented" the later-claimed subject matter as of his earlier application filing date.155 Thus, it is conceptually appropriate to link written description compliance to proof of invention under the well-established standards applicable to priority determinations under section 102(g) of the Patent Act.156

These standards necessarily implicate enablement. Conception, the mental part of invention, is the "formation in the mind of the inventor, of a definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention, as it is hereafter to be applied in practice."157 In some cases, an inventor may not be able to establish conception until he has also reduced the invention to practice through a successful experiment.158 This was the case in Amgen, where art workers were unsuccessful in using the gene cloning methods used by the alleged prior inventor as proof of earlier conception under section 102(g).159

Contrary to Lilly's seemingly bright-line rule, proof of conception through an actual reduction to practice should not be required to establish "possession" of any and all gene inventions. Actual reduction to practice to show a completed conception has never been required across the board for a particular technology. Conception is complete when only ordinary skill would be required to reduce an invention to practice and can be evidenced by a contemporaneous disclosure that enables others to make the invention.160

In Lilly, UC provided an enabling disclosure of how to isolate and sequence the human insulin-encoding cDNA of claim 5. In the absence of any evidence presented by Lilly to the contrary (much less clear and convincing evidence), UC's issued '525 patent was entitled to a presumption that its disclosure complied with the enablement requirement of section 112.161 Unlike the situation in Amgen, where the gene isolation methods of the alleged first inventor were not enabling, proof of an actual reduction to practice by cloning and gene sequencing should not have been required in Lilly. UC's enabling disclosure of how to isolate the human insulin gene evidenced a completed conception. UC was therefore sufficiently "in possession" of the claimed human insulin encoding-cDNA for written description purposes to be entitled to the 1977 filing date of the '525 patent.162

Second, the gene isolation process UC described in example 6 of the '525 patent was effective for its purpose. As discussed below,163 pre-Lilly written description jurisprudence made clear that a product may be described by a disclosure of the process for producing it, if that process will necessarily lead to the claimed product. This standard, though satisfied by the facts of Lilly, was not met in Fiers. The Fiers court recognized that "Revel's application does not even demonstrate that the disclosed method actually leads to the DNA, and thus that he had possession of the invention."164 Rather than resolve the written description issue on this narrower ground, however, Fiers extended Amgen's simultaneous-conception-and-reduction-to-practice rationale to require the same "precise definition" for satisfaction of the written description requirement.

Lastly, Fiers' treatment of the written description requirement is distinguishable because the party Revel had no sequence data whatsoever in the application he sought to use for written description support. In Lilly, although the inventors could not disclose the sequence of human insulin-encoding cDNA in 1977 (because they had not yet isolated it), they did disclose the sequence of rat insulin-encoding cDNA as well as an enabling method for obtaining the human cDNA sequence. The district court in Lilly recognized this key difference and found that "[u]nlike the inventors in Fiers and Amgen, the inventors on the '525 patent actually had isolated and characterized a cDNA gene for insulin-i.e., rat insulin."165 These are closely related molecules and, in fact, one can be used to isolate the other. The Federal Circuit ignored the critical distinction between the case before it and the precedent invoked, however; rather than factually analyzing whether persons of ordinary skill would have recognized the human cDNA as within the scope of what UC had invented as of the '525 application filing date, the court applied a per se rule that the written description requirement could not be satisfied absent an exposition of the precise nucleotide sequence of the claimed human cDNA.

A factually-based inquiry would have placed Lilly far from Fiers on a spectrum of written description adequacy. Nothing in Fiers indicated Revel's possession of the sequence of the claimed DNA as of the filing date of Revel's foreign application; Revel's application was rejected not only for failure to provide an adequate written description but also for failure to comply with the enablement requirement of section 112.166 In contrast, UC's express disclosure of the nucleotide sequence for rat insulin-encoding cDNA in Lilly, coupled with a description of a process for isolating and identifying the human cDNA sequence, goes considerably further towards raising the legitimate factual issue of the scope of what UC had actually invented as of its application filing date-whether persons of ordinary skill would have interpreted the disclosure as sufficient evidence that UC had actually invented more than just the rat insulin-encoding cDNA. As emphasized by the CCPA in In re Wertheim,167 "[t]he primary consideration is factual and depends on the nature of the invention and the amount of knowledge imparted to those skilled in the art by the disclosure."168

2. A process can provide written description support for a product

The Lilly court also rejected UC's argument that it had provided an adequate written description of the human insulin-encoding cDNA of claim 5 of the '525 patent by providing a process for obtaining it.169 In concluding that UC's provision in example 6 of a "general method of producing human insulin cDNA and a description of the human insulin A and B chain amino acid sequences that cDNA encodes"170 did not provide a written description of the claimed human cDNA, the court relied on In re Deuel,171 a leading biotech nonobviousness decision.172 In Deuel, the Federal Circuit recognized that a prior art disclosure of a protein's structure does not necessarily render obvious a particular DNA molecule encoding that protein, given the redundancy of the genetic code.173 Extending this doctrine of nonobviousness to the written description inquiry, the Lilly court opined that "a fortiori, a description that does not render a claimed invention obvious does not sufficiently describe that invention for purposes of 112, 1."174 In other words, disclosure of a desired protein and a method for generating the DNA sequence that encodes it (the nature of the prior art in Deuel) do not satisfy the written description requirement for a claim reciting that DNA sequence.

The Lilly court's automatic extension of Deuel's nonobviousness rule to the very different issues raised by the written description requirement is troubling. As a factual matter, the lack of suggestion to combine and expectation of success that Deuel recognized as resulting from the degeneracy of the genetic code was considerably lessened in Lilly by UC's previous sequencing of rat insulin cDNA.175 UC's knowledge of that sequence, coupled with the methods of example 6, was of sufficient detail that Lilly did not mount an enablement challenge. UC used the example 6 methodology to actually reduce to practice the human insulin cDNA invention within two years of filing the '525 application.176

As a legal matter, the nonobviousness requirement of section 103 and the written description requirement of section 112 involve substantively different inquiries. The section 103 inquiry examines whether the invention, even though novel, represents enough of a qualitative advance in the art that time-limited monopoly rights are justified, from the perspective of an ordinary worker in the art. The written description inquiry asks not whether the description would have been sufficient to render obvious the claimed invention, but whether it would reasonably have signaled to those in the art that the claimed invention was actually part of the patentee's contribution. Nonobviousness is examined entirely from the perspective of the hypothetical person of ordinary skill, without hindsight consideration of the claimed invention. Written description operates as a timing mechanism, to maintain the correct universe of prior art against which a later-claimed invention is fairly examined for novelty and nonobviousness. Compliance with written description asks whether it is appropriate that the claimed invention be examined against the smaller universe of prior art in existence as of the earlier application filing date, or whether fairness dictates that that universe be expanded to encompass developments occurring between the application filing date and the date when the claim is subsequently presented or amended. The written description requirement should be viewed merely as a timing device and not applied as an obviousness-like criteria that judges the merits of the advance represented by the claimed invention.

The Lilly court did not follow earlier authority which suggests that the process disclosure of UC's example 6 should have provided adequate written description support for the resulting product, if that process would have necessarily or inherently produced the claimed invention. For example, in In re Edwards,177 the CCPA considered whether the written description of a parent application adequately supported the applicant's later-presented CIP claim to a water-insoluble polyol having sufficient self-catalytic activity to react with organic polyisocyanates to form rigid polyurethane foams.178 The Edwards court held that the disclosure of the parent was "not intrinsically defective merely because appellants chose to describe their claimed compound by the process of making it;" the court's "primary concern" was "whether the description requirement has been complied with, not the mode selected for compliance."179 The Edwards court stressed the need for fact-specific analysis of every written description case and expressly declined to adopt an across-the-board rule of description adequacy via process disclosure.180 But with respect to the process before it, which without question would inherently produce the claimed compound, a sufficient written description of the resulting product had been supplied .181

Following the Edwards rule, the proper inquiry in Lilly would have been whether UC's provision in example 6 of a process for obtaining the human insulin-encoding cDNA would necessarily have led one of skill in the art to the claimed cDNA. In other words, would persons of ordinary skill, looking at the '525 specification, have understood that performance of the process disclosed in example 6 would result in the cDNA of claim 5? If so, then example 6 represents a sufficient written description of the invention. UC contended at trial that the process of example 6 was in fact the process it subsequently used to arrive at the human insulin-encoding cDNA.182 Assuming the truth of this assertion, it strongly suggests that the "process necessarily leading to the product" test of Edwards would have been answered affirmatively. Rather than addressing this factual issue, the Lilly court short-circuited the analysis to hold that, as a matter of law, UC's description of a process could not qualify as a description of the cDNA product.

V. Public Policy Does Not Favor Uniquely Rigorous Biotechnology Patentability Rules

In Lilly, the Federal Circuit has fashioned a newly heightened written description standard unique to biotechnological inventions, without meaningful explanation of policy concerns that would justify such a significant departure from earlier written description principles. Despite the fact that Lilly did not challenge the ability of UC's application to teach art workers how to isolate and sequence the claimed human, vertebrate, and mammalian cDNA, the Federal Circuit invalidated the claims because UC had not yet specified the nucleotide sequences of those cDNAs.183 In practical terms, Lilly may profoundly limit the scope of protection available for new gene inventions. Only those genes that can be precisely described by nucleotide sequence will be viable candidates for patenting; disclosure of function alone will no longer suffice.184

The elevation of the written description requirement for biotechnological subject matter in Lilly is but the latest advance in an ominous trend. Imposition of heightened patentability requirements for biotechnological inventions is also reflected in the Federal Circuit's recent significant expansion of the enablement requirement for this subject matter. Enablement holdings, including Amgen and Genentech, Inc. v. Novo Nordisk A/S,185 illustrate the Federal Circuit's increasing willingness to essentially limit biotechnology claim scope to the embodiments disclosed in an applicant's working examples. Applying general enablement principles, the fact that some experimentation may be required to make and use a biotechnological invention such as a gene that encodes a particular protein is not fatal to validity, so long as the degree of experimentation required is not "undue." The tenor of recent Federal Circuit biotechnology decisions seems to reflect the opposite view; namely, that almost any independent experimentation by the art worker would be undue.

Taken in tandem with recent developments in biotechnological enablement doctrine, the parallel "ratcheting up" of the written description requirement in Lilly signals the creation of a unique patent law jurisprudence for genetic engineering inventions.186 Unique patent law treatment, for biotechnology or any other particular technology, raises concern. Public policy favors uniform standards for all technologies. The development of uniquely stringent, biotech-specific patent law principles cannot help but chill the development of new biotechnological products and processes.187

The argument that the rigor of the written description requirement should vary with the nature of the technology at issue has intuitive appeal. Similar arguments are well accepted in the enablement context, where more extensive "make and use" disclosure is required to enable subject matter involving "unpredictable factors," like chemical reactions and physiological activity, than that required to enable claimed technology involving "predictable factors" such as mechanical or electrical elements.188 But the Federal Circuit must do more than fall back on the mantra of "unpredictability" or "complexity"189 as a justification for uniformly restricting the scope of protection available for biotechnological inventions.190 A real distinction exists between critical application of written description and enablement criteria to inventions in the biotechnological arts, and uniquely rigorous treatment of those inventions under sui generis legal standards crafted to narrowly constrain the available scope of protection.

The Lilly court's per se rule that a claim to a cDNA must be described in terms of its specific nucleotide sequence fails to address fact-specific questions concerning the state of the art and the level of skill among art workers, from whose perspective the written description inquiry must be answered. Though attractive in its certainty, such a bright-line rule surely reduces incentives to invest in innovation by depriving potential patentees of the opportunity to fully benefit from their research. The United States patent system, until now, has always provided more in terms of patent scope than merely those embodiments expressly disclosed by the inventor in her application.191 The patent law wisely recognizes that limiting the protection provided by a patent to the expressly disclosed embodiments would dramatically reduce the value of the grant by enabling competitors to easily avoid infringement through minor variation.

The Lilly decision also frustrates the policy of encouraging prompt filing of patent applications on new inventions, which in turn is thought to result in the more rapid disclosure to the public of new technical information. After Lilly, inventors can be expected to delay the filing of gene inventions until they have precisely determined the corresponding DNA sequences. They will be faced with a Hobson's choice of accepting a later priority date by delaying filing until written description compliance is certain, or filing sooner and risking invalidation for failure to meet a now-uncertain standard for adequate disclosure. In terms of obtaining broad generic claims, institutional patent applicants benefiting from greater resources for rapidly sequencing additional species of cDNA once a particular gene has been cloned will be at a decided advantage over independent entities or smaller firms without comparable resources.

Users of the patent system are justified in viewing the Lilly decision as reflecting an increasingly-widening gulf between the norms of the business and scientific community and those of the United States patent system. Persons skilled in the art of recombinant DNA technology were very likely to have understood that by making the rat insulin cDNA, the UC inventors conceptually possessed the human insulin cDNA (if not all mammalian cDNAs). But under the Lilly court's heightened "physical possession" standard for written description compliance, UC was denied any significant reward for its breakthrough contribution. Rather than awarding patent protection to the first to make it possible to clone a particular gene family, the written description standard of Lilly requires that the patent right go to the first firm to sequence a number of the genes (or, perhaps, even the first to correctly guess their sequence). The firm with the fastest or most accurate cloning and sequencing team will reap the benefits of an invention made possible by the pioneering research of others. The credibility of the patent system suffers as users come to recognize that it no longer reflects the realities of scientific contribution.